The Hour’s Lesson

A bold experiment, some might say. Gloriously risky, someone did say. Common sense triumphant, say I. Let me explain.

When it was first suggested that I take part in the Lyceum’s production of ‘The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other’, I was diffident. ‘A play for which there are no words’ sounded suspiciously like the kind of veiled condemnation you find in some school reports. But no; it is that rare thing, a mainstream play without dialogue, inspired by an occasion on which the author, Peter Handke, was simply watching the world go by – when a coffin entered his line of vision.

The change in the atmosphere was so profound, and the lesson in the power of non-verbal communication so forceful, that this piece was the result. The audience is placed in the position of a person on a park bench, or at a cafe table, with the stage his vista. Starting in a fairly low key, with shopkeepers and firemen, the cast soon expands to include figures of fantasy, history and myth.

The precise nature of what is seen is left unclear – is it an allegory? Purgatory, perhaps? Or has the man on the bench simply fallen asleep? Such ambiguity is part of the point, and probably no-one’s answer will be the same. But, as one of the cast of ‘Edinburgh residents’ which performed it, seeing it from the inside taught me three objective lessons which I feel I must share with audiences actual and potential.

The first lesson is this. In a play without dialogue, the audience is if anything even more involved than normal, as it is forced to look for the objective truth in sources about which we usually do not even think. We are told that only 20% of communication is verbal and that many interviewers make up their minds about a candidate before he or she has even spoken. We all make similar snap judgements – but how often do we consider their validity? Sherlock Holmes may have known a weaver by his thumb, but he did not presume to know the man. If ever you see this play, see then how much more you notice the extraordinary variety on our own streets, and make inferences from what you see…and this time, you will wonder if you are correct. Who knows, perhaps your curiosity might even impel you so far as to speak to a stranger!

The second lesson is how far the stage can build confidence. I have suffered for many years from anxiety, once so acute that maintaining a conversation was beyond me. The effect of making it to curtain call on the opening night was like a dam bursting, flash floods of exhilaration carrying me, carrying all of us, to new heights of self-confidence. Some counsel killing nerves by a thousand cuts: this delivered a single thrusting blow to their heart. If every child was able to take part in an experience such as this, the rampant generational epidemic of poor mental health would start to disappear.

The third lesson, however, is the most important of all. The Guardian quoted co-director Janice Parker’s description of this show as ‘gloriously risky’, but misunderstood it as being admonitory. Francis Chichester’s solo sail around the world was ‘gloriously risky’. The music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky was ‘gloriously risky’. Everything that seeks to break new ground is gloriously risky and remains glorious for that reason even if the risk doesn’t pay off. But really, this enterprise needed admonishments only if you believe that ‘ordinary’ people are naturally incompetent and need careful shepherding if what they do is not to dissolve in disaster.

The most brilliant stroke that the directors Wils Wilson and Janice Parker displayed among an array of them was to dispense with auditions and work with whosoever turned up to the casting call. They showed that they knew there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ person: each person has a unique character and set of abilities just as they have fingerprints, and that if you give a group of enthusiastic and responsible people a job to do, the chances are they’ll pull it off.

This is hardly a novel observation – ancient Athens after all used to fill public offices by lottery from the ‘common’ populace – but is one we seem to have lost sight of in a blizzard of degrees and diplomas. (Maybe, just maybe, embracing one Greek legacy, public theatre, could lead one day to the rehabilitation of another: direct democracy! It would be quite something if ‘The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other’ became ‘The Hour We Started To Know Ourselves’!)

We share our living space with millions, yet for most of us our paths are as rigidly defined as planetary orbits – it is notable that until one scene towards the very end of the play, virtually none of the characters on stage interact with each other at all. The casting call for ‘Edinburgh residents’ drew out a group of people as eclectic as the characters we portrayed on stage, and who otherwise would probably never have met. (To a remark that there were no people of colour, I can reply that we had a Chinese lady, a Greek, a German, a Czech, an Argentinian, and a lady of mixed Scots and Belize parentage.) Not only was there not a single unkind word, but many of us made friends for life. We, who acted in real life as the characters we portrayed on stage, became, through the process of acting it, examples of what it was designed to do. Life was made to imitate art for us. Let it do so for you, too.

Michael McLernan

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